Darkness said unto the mortals:
“You are creatures who prefer life to death,
Creation to destruction,
Light to myself.
You are creatures who would have endless summer,
Yet you must remember that my kind did not create the inverse to punish you.
Darkness has its purpose.”
“We know,” answered the mortals.
“For there can be no light without darkness.”
“Fools!” Darkness cried. “Why do you presume
That one thing only has worth when it gives rise to another?
Is rain detestable because it is not the sun?
Is fire valueless because it can rise against you?
No! My creatures,
You need fire and you need rain,
And you also need me,
More than you understand.”
- Old northern folk tale
The scavengers had the distinctive look of city-dwellers – decently fed bodies, but lean and hungry eyes pining for a nourishment that food could not provide. Occasionally, their mouths would twist into bared grins that seemed involuntary. In this day and age, people either grew stagnated and complacent, or they got desperate and greedy; there was very little in between.
As the duo crested a hill, a desecrated village suddenly dominated the landscape below them, the fields and leveled buildings gray as if dusted with ash. The first scavenger, an auburn-haired man, snorted deep in the back of his throat. “Really? Saint Valdez? You dragged me all the way here for a trip to Saint Valdez?!”
Saint Valdez Point, known in the surrounding areas as Saint Valdez or Valdez Village, had been blown straight to the void fifty years ago, and the intervening decades had seen it picked clean of anything remotely useful. Forget treasure – there wasn’t even any garbage left in Saint Valdez anymore. Knowing this very well, auburn-hair’s traveling companion, a man with brown-baked skin who had proposed this mission in the first place, looked affronted.
“You think I’m completely numbed out?” he demanded. “We ain’t going to Saint Valdez! It just happens to be nearby is all!”
“I’ll show you. This way.” Brown-skin, the trip’s Number One, started picking a path down the slope, his chin held high, eager to prove his intelligence as a scrap hunter.
It was a sweltering midsummer day, and the heat had struck both scavengers hard, even in this northern country. But as they skirted Saint Valdez, the temperature shifted, almost as if they had encountered a trapped pocket of cool air. Except that the air wasn’t cool, nor was it warm. It carried no scents and no sounds. It was utterly, skin-crawlingly neutral, in a way that you didn’t realize was offensive until you experienced it for yourself.
The scavengers, who had never been to a place like this except through hearsay, suddenly had much more respect for the explorers who had braved this place before them.
“This’d better be good,” muttered auburn-hair, Number Two. He cast his eyes up to the sky to find that even that had gone gray, and devoid of any sun, it was perfectly balanced between light and darkness. Worse still, when he looked over his shoulder, even the path they’d taken to get here was as flat and tenuous as a charcoal sketch. He’d just been that way, and he knew that things were normal back there, but the altered laws of reality in Saint Valdez would not admit to it.
“It will be. I got a line on this place,” responded Number One, keeping his cool. “It was all walled up ’til the wall started breaking a few weeks ago, and the wild-folk in the area started carrying off the stones, you know, for building materials, but nobody’s actually been inside the cave yet.”
“How do you know?”
“I told you, I got a line –”
“Your line could’ve already gone in and taken everything worth getting!” proclaimed Number Two righteously.
But Number One just shook his head and picked up the pace, forcing his companion to hurry along if he didn’t want to be left alone in a ghost village.
They’d argued about the merits of their destination half a dozen times since setting out from the city that morning, and each time, the leader of this little excursion had remained oddly insistent that no one could have possibly been in this cave before. It was honestly starting to worry his partner. Not that the wild-folk were a real concern – those people were always half-feral, and if they couldn’t eat something or use it to defend themselves from demons, they didn’t want it – and as for the cave itself, who’d go through the trouble of sealing it up if there was nothing to hide there? But…
“There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”
Number One’s feet stomped and slowed, and his eyes narrowed. “I briefed you with everything! Are you telling me you’re so numbed out that you already forgot it all?!”
Number Two hissed in frustration. “You keep saying that nobody else has ever been in this cave, and I want to know why not! What the void is stopping them?!”
Number One glanced backwards briefly. His eyes, half-shrouded by his eyelids, had a guarded look about them. “All right. I didn’t mention it because it’s nothing to worry about, but…this place has a few local legends attached to it. You know, it was sacred or something, and the gods sealed it up themselves. All that.”
Number Two’s eyes widened. “Wait, seriously?!”
“It’s bunk. You know that. Even if the stories had any kind of truth to them at one point, the wall’s gone, which means that any magic seals are too. Now it’s just the stupid superstition that’s left. Country people are like that.”
“Right. Of course.” Country people still believed that if they prayed hard enough, everything would go back to the way it used to be – an attitude that was finally dying off in the cities. Still, knowing that they were headed to a possibly divine site made the whole salvage mission feel...a little more nerve-wracking, somehow. But what was there to be afraid of? Magic? New magic barely worked anymore, never mind the old stuff. Demons? Yeah, right. The gods used to wipe their asses with demons; they’d had no need to trap them in caves. Or was it…
No, it wasn’t anything, the scavengers told themselves firmly. Except maybe their surroundings. They were passing through a “forest” now, though it barely had enough trees left to qualify as such, and the few dead trunks still standing looked more like pipe sculptures than plant life.
At last, they reached a cluster of smooth-worn rocks, their texture almost glassy from fifty years of neutralized existence. “It’s around here somewhere,” said Number One. “Help me look.”
Number Two complied, his hand running along the stones as they increased progressively in size, the tallest of them now well above his head. And suddenly, curving above the ground like a doorway, there it was: an opening that could only be the cave entrance. It had a deliberate, constructed appearance to it, but none of the indicators of former divine presence: no inscriptions, no ornamentations. Maybe they’d been obliterated by the numbing, or maybe the cave had simply been shaped by mortal hands alone.
“It’s pretty small,” he said dubiously.
“Are you going to complain about every damn part of this?! It’s big enough to get inside of, and that’s what matters! Just duck down your head. Not that you’ve got much in there worth protecting.”
So saying, Number One scrabbled into the opening, his footsteps sounding flat and dead.
Number Two swore and followed him. He found enclosed spaces distasteful, but the cave was no darker or brighter than the forest and Saint Valdez had been. That was probably the only advantage to exploring a numbed-out area; portable light sources were not required. Which was an especially useful feature considering that candles and matches tended to function erratically in places like this.
At least the cave path opened up as it trailed further along. It had a slight downward slope that made the going easy now, but it would be a right bastard to carry anything back on their way out. Some of the space around them must have been underground, which explained why it all seemed bigger than the outside had suggested.
Funny how relieving the deceased of their possessions used to be a crime, called “grave-robbing.” Most people nowadays just called it “a necessity of life.”
They’d been going for a few minutes when Number Two suddenly stopped. “Uh…hey…”
“What the void is it now?!”
“Um…am I seeing things, or are we casting shadows?”
Number One stopped up short, his gaze slowly descending to the cave floor.
The scavengers were, undoubtedly, casting shadows. But that wasn’t all: darkness was pooled in the corners of the passage, and in front of them, a succession of deep earthy browns gradually melded into black. Behind them, the path slowly led back into unsettlingly neutral gray, and that in itself was unusual; there typically appeared to be a sharp border between the numb and normal sections of the world. One minute everything was the way that nature had intended, and the next, it wasn’t.
Apparently that wasn’t the way things worked down here.
“Okay,” said Number One at last. “We’re underground. And I guess that the numbing doesn’t spread all the way down here.”
“Is that how these things go?”
“Void if I know! I don’t make a point of hanging around numbed-out places.”
He lifted his foot to take a decisive step forward, but as soon as he brought it down again, an audible crunch sounded from beneath the sole of his boot.
Number Two jumped.
“Relax!” Number One reached down and plucked up a vaguely shiny object. He held it towards the lighter part of the tunnel. “I think we may have just found the start of the loot.”
What he’d found was a brooch, old but seemingly untouched by any numbing; its casing was dull and crusted with age, and the nearly black gem in the center of it now sported a hairline crack, apparently from being stepped on. He scrutinized it, then shook his head. “Cheap glass costume jewelry. A real jewel wouldn’t have broken.”
He flung it away from them, and it skittered out of sight like a beetle. Echoes bounced back to them, another touch of normality in this stilted fantasy-land, hinting at a larger space up ahead.
Number Two looked placated. “Even if it’s junk, we know someone was here a long time ago. And that’s a good sign.”
“Exactly. And I think there’s a cavern coming up. Let’s keep going.”
It was almost pitch-black further in, the way that a cave was supposed to be, and Number One was soon forced to stop and light a match. Its flame didn’t illuminate very much – a faint yellow flicker reflected off of the coarse ground, but everything else (besides their own faces) remained an inky emptiness.
“Did you bring any candles?” he asked.
“Damn it, neither did I.” He sighed. “Let’s feel around for the loot. If you find anything interesting, we can use another match to look at it.”
The scavengers split up, slowly creeping along and patting down the floor and walls as they went. There was plenty of dirt, but no living creatures, as expected – anything that had been residing here before the cave was sealed had long since perished from lack of nourishment, and there was nothing alive outside to crawl in here, not even the tiniest insect. Neither of them was worried about being bitten or clawed or accidentally disturbing a sleeping predator.
And then they heard the moan.
It was faint and breathy, halfway to being a sigh, and in another context, it would have just sounded like someone waking up after a long nap. But down here it was spine chilling, ethereal. The scavengers froze, seeking out each other’s shadowy outlines in the darkness.
“What was that?” whispered Number Two.
“Void if I –”
“Nnnnnnf.” That sound again! It was drawn and high pitched, the sound of a distressed woman. And now there were two little pinprick lights hovering a few feet away, not the burning flicker of match-flames, but a steady yellow glow like tiny electric lightbulbs.
The lightbulbs blinked slowly and became eyes.
“Oh my dear sweet gods,” whispered Number One.
A form moved towards them, just barely silhouetted by the light of its own eyes. It looked person-shaped at first. One head, two arms, two legs…
And two enormous, hook-edged wings, unfurling menacingly as the creature lurched at them.
The scavengers fled screaming, shrieks of “Demon!” ringing in their wake as they stumbled and scraped their way out of the cave. They hardly noticed when they reached the numbed lands and they tore past Saint Valdez without a second thought and they were still running when they reached the road that would take them back to the city from whence they had come.
It took almost that long before their pursuer, on hands and knees, had dragged itself out of the cave.
“It” was a woman, plump and blonde, as pale and shaky as a mealworm that had lived its life beneath a stone. Lemon-colored eyes peered warily from behind her rat’s nest of hair. Had anyone been around to remark on her age, they might have placed her in her mid-to-late twenties – which made it even stranger that her clothes, tattered rags though they now were, appeared to have once been the popular fashion of fifty years ago.
She knelt carefully, her wings pooling out behind her like the train of a court dress. She kept scanning the bleak gray landscape, and her mouth worked silently, asking questions that no one was present to answer.
Then her hand touched her throat, perhaps unconsciously, and she realized that something was missing.
Eyes blown wide, the young woman scrambled to her feet, having to lean against the rocks to keep her balance. Her legs had forgotten how to walk and were not eager to learn again, but she kept herself going with pure determination, tottering back into the cave. The darkness didn’t bother her in the slightest; in fact, it bothered her eyes far less than the weird not-light outside.
She found her brooch discarded thoughtlessly in the cavern and collapsed on her knees beside it.
“Oh, no,” she croaked, her voice hoarse with thirst and the disuse of ages, and she ran her thumb along the crack in the jewel’s surface as if the little action might repair it. After a moment, she transferred it to her fist and squeezed, ears straining with concentration. But whatever she was listening for, she did not hear.
Sighing raspily, she pushed herself up and trudged further into the cavern, weighted down by her wings and her emotions. Her cape was still in decent condition, heaped on the floor in a puddle of fabric. Once it was wound around her shoulders, it settled flat across her back. Her bat-like, leathery wings had vanished like a nightmarish hallucination exposed to the steely light of day.
The young woman sat down, just for a few minutes longer, relishing the peaceful darkness. She was still weak, frustratingly so. But she had to press on regardless. She wouldn’t regain her strength just by sitting here.
And there was so much to do…
She stood up, steadier this time, and began to walk on a deliberate course towards Saint Valdez.